Almost 30 years ago, in the February 1994 issue of the Atlantic, I wrote a lengthy cover story, “The Coming Anarchy”, that ended with these words: “The same day that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat clasped hands on the White House lawn, my Air Afrique plane was approaching Bamako, Mali, revealing corrugated-zinc shacks at the edge of an expanding desert. The real news wasn’t at the White House, I realised. It was right below.” In fact, the Rabin-Arafat handshake led to a peace process, the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine, that ultimately collapsed; whereas my main contention in “The Coming Anarchy”, that the Earth’s natural environment, including drought and desertification, would emerge as “the national-security issue” of the 21st century, has been vindicated. Though now it goes by the term “climate change”.
Whereas the opinion pages of the 1990s, both liberal and conservative, were obsessed with the ideal of democracy shaping the post-Cold War world, I concentrated on how the increasing lack of underground water and nutrients in overused soils would, in indirect ways, inflame existing ethnic, religious and tribal divides. This factor, merged with an ever growing number of young males in economically and politically fragile societies, would amplify the possibility of extremism and violent conflict. Natural forces were at work, I wrote, that would intensify political instability: if not necessarily everywhere, then certainly in the world’s least governable zones. The most benighted parts of West Africa were a microcosm, albeit in exaggerated form, of the turmoil to come around the globe. Africa certainly had something to teach us.
Indeed, the countries of the Sahel region of Africa, which a recent coup in Niger threatens to unravel, are afflicted by the demons of water scarcity and abnormally high temperatures. Women give birth there an average of six times during their lifetimes. Over 40 per cent of Niger’s population lives in extreme poverty, with the result being high levels of forced migration, even as refugees stream over into Niger from conflicts in neighbouring countries. This is why the concept of “climate wars” is an oversimplification.
As I detailed in “The Coming Anarchy”, the issue of climate change must be integrated with high population growth in the poorest countries, as well as with resource scarcities, disease spreads, weak or non-existent institutions, illogical borders, and inter-ethnic, sectarian disputes. Because sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the Sahel, features a number of these factors in extreme form, the region is central to the future of our world, and particularly relevant to a most disagreeable concept: how states and their leaders can become overwhelmed by existential forces beyond their control.
While Africa is now 18 per cent of the world population, it will rise to 26 per cent by 2050, and is projected to be almost 40 per cent by 2100. At the turn of the 21st century, Europe and Africa had roughly the same population. At the end of this century, there could be seven Africans for every European. While the fate of Europe seems today to lie in the east, in Ukraine, as the century progresses it will increasingly lie in the south, as steady migration from south of the Sahara takes hold. Niger isn’t critical only because it is a battleground between Russian mercenaries, a cluster of Islamic extremists, and American forces. It is critical because of itself, because its problems constitute a metaphor for some of our most pressing issues. As technology shrinks geography and the world becomes ever more anxious and claustrophobic, so Africa will loom larger in our consciousness as we increasingly comprehend how we are all part of the same human family.
In comprehending this world, dealing with ground-level realities is more important than political science abstractions. I travelled through Niger in 2004 with a platoon of US marines a decade after I had published “The Coming Anarchy”. The capital, Niamey, is tucked into the extreme south-west of a country that is largely encompassed by the Sahara Desert. As I headed north and east away from the capital on rutted dirt tracks, it was as if the country disappeared: no police, no signs of authority, nothing. Men with Tuareg headdresses began to appear here and there at roadblocks, wanting bribes. The bloody, apricot soil thinned out into a bumpy semi-desert, bearded with thorns and punctuated by termite hills, eventually to culminate in total desert. In 2006, with US Army Special Forces in neighbouring Mali, I had an even more extreme experience. I learned there that the city of Timbuktu, with its mud-brick houses and occasional satellite dish, rather than being the ragged edge of the Earth as the cliché had it, was actually part of the modern world that I left behind as I headed deeper and northwards into the Sahara. I was en route to Araouane, a place with few wells or inhabitants, yet was still a name on a map, as though it were Cleveland. But no one in Timbuktu, let alone anyone in the capital Bamako far away to the south and west, had any idea if people still lived in Araouane and what the security and health situations were. The Green Berets had to find out by actually going there.
They calculated it would take four hours to get to Araouane from Timbuktu. It took 11, because of flat tyres, overheated car batteries and getting repeatedly stuck in the sand. (The briefest rainfalls in the region can cause floods as the sand, because of drought, has no absorptive capacity.) Araouane was a huddle of ruins with only women, children and old people left, as the men were conducting banditry and commerce on the caravan routes. With the coming of democracy to Mali back then, politicians had come under pressure to spend all of the aid money in the populous south, near Bamako, where the votes were. This was just one way in which democracy made Mali’s impossibly drawn borders even more unreal. The situation in these desert badlands has in some ways worsened since I was there, due to the influx of radical Islamist groups.
When the French colonialists drew these borders in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they placed the capitals as far to the south and as close to the savannah as they could – partly so that the cities would be merely northward extensions of coastal West Africa where the colonial troops were mostly located. It is the capitals and nearby populations that are properly part of the Sahel, an ecological transition zone between desert and grassland. Yet, on account of the imperialist-drawn map, the governments of Niger and Mali are stuck with jurisdiction over vast desert tracts stretching across the Sahara, which comprise the majority of their legal territory. Niger is so immense and empty that the Libyan border to the north-east is farther away from the capital Niamey than the North American Great Lakes are from the Gulf of Mexico.
In spite of the American military’s deployments in the Sahel and Sahara, Islamic jihadists have filled a good part of this blank space, and that has drawn an even larger American presence there, as well as Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries – all because there is little or no local governance beyond the capital cities. Those cities are themselves besieged by high populations of young people, despite manufacturing bases that are rudimentary at best. These are subsistence economies that, to make things more difficult, are rapidly urbanising.
Consider the borders of the Sahel and West Africa. Whereas demographic logic argues for a horizontality – that is, a unified coastal community along the Gulf of Guinea – you have a political map that slices up this enormous territory vertically, with populations anchored in the south and forced to project power far to the north, which many have trouble doing. This would be a supreme challenge even without the ethnic and other divisions that beset these countries. Then there is the hostility of the Earth itself: tropical soils are not that fertile, and quick growth of crops by no means releases populations from labour. Climate change, in the form of drought and a warming planet, will further disrupt the agricultural cycle here, intensify water shortages, and create other havoc, even as it may benefit human beings living in cold climates. This part of Africa is ground zero for the ultimate challenges of human existence in the natural world, challenges that colonial history and present-day politics have only made worse.
What is to be done? The American foreign policy elite, with some notable exceptions, believes it has the best answer: democracy. If West African countries would only hold elections and abide by civilian rule they would gradually get on their feet and build governing institutions throughout their territories. The American elite defines successful countries in the developing world as those that hold elections and unsuccessful ones as those that fail to do so. This is not logic, nor a belief grounded in history or even political science. It is pure ideology. And missionary ideology at that. Look at the Arab Spring’s failure! Of course, people in the developing world want democracy, but that doesn’t mean it will automatically bring good results in the face of vast poverty, ethnic and sectarian cleavages and so forth. Democracy has worked in places such as South Korea and Taiwan because it came after industrialisation and the creation of middle classes, not before.
The clearest thinking on the dynamics of coup-plagued societies such as those in the Sahel (where seven have occurred since 2020) was done by the late Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington in Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). Huntington writes: “In the world of oligarchy, the soldier is a radical” in favour of reform. “In the middle-class world, he is a participant and arbiter; as the mass society looms on the horizon he becomes the conservative guardian of the existing order. Thus paradoxically but understandably, the more backward a society is, the more progressive the role of the military.”
According to Huntington, political development is rarely straightforward. The more complex a society becomes, the more upheavals there will be. Coups are signs of churn in the social and political system that can rarely be fixed by outsiders demanding democracy. Anticipating Huntington, the American sociologist Barrington Moore Jr made clear in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966), a book of stunning, voluminous country-by-country detail, that each nation has to find its own way to stable and liberal governance. This process can take centuries.
The official statements of American and European officials indicate an ignorance of these critical nuances, and of the facts on the ground. To argue against their democratic universalism you need to have detailed information about all the facets of the country in question, whereas to demand election, as these officials do, requires no knowledge at all about it. For them democracy is such a beautiful idea that it seemingly stands outside reality.
To wit, ethnic politics evidently played a role in the recent coup in Niger: the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, is a Diffa Arab from the country’s east; while the coup leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, along with his fellow officers, are Hausas, mostly from the west. But to bring up such facts in Western capitals can lead to charges of determinism and essentialism – immobilising analysis of how power struggles actually play out.
I once had a discussion with a particularly high-placed and influential person in Washington policy circles about this. I mentioned that Libya, which had fallen apart some years before, could not be expected to be like Sweden, and had a long road of basic political development ahead of it. This person, who displayed no knowledge about tribal and regional divisions in Libya, declared that it was mainly a matter of sending experts there to instruct Libyans about democracy. The lack of curiosity, and the illusion of knowledge where little or none actually existed, was stunning. Indeed, Libya fell apart because the West helped topple dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi in the name of democratic universalism. The same dynamic holds for many ignorant American and European policymakers when it comes to the Sahel, which is in a degree of disorder and confusion comparable to Libya.
Thus we have the tedious, recurring phenomenon of elections, particularly in Africa, where the threat of violent unrest to protest the results is common. If that threat fails to materialise, policymakers in the West breathe easier, unwilling to ever acknowledge how ethnic and other divisions within those societies can be exacerbated by the electoral process itself. Democracy works when there are institutions and developed economic classes already in existence, so that a fully literate bureaucracy functions and political divisions are less lethal than those of ethnicity and tribe. Instead, Westerners demand the holding of elections in countries, like those in the Sahel, without well-functioning institutions and sizeable middle classes.
The result is Niger, where an elected president has a falling out with his own guards and a coup results – the existence of an elected president did not mean there was an operational and institutionalised democratic system, or anything close to resembling one. The Biden administration simply assumed too much in Niger. I am not saying that we should meekly accept coups, especially this one, where the junta’s harsh treatment of the deposed president and his family may indicate a particularly brutal streak. But neither should we assume democracy must be the natural, default option in every poor country.
Risky elections and episodic experiments in democracy are indirect signs of Malthusian pressures, which are in turn aggravated by disease, environmental scarcity and climate change. Yes, the world is ageing, but much less so in the Sahel. The situation there validates the key insight of the turn-of-the-19th-century English philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus. For Malthus, humankind exists in an ecosystem; our species is therefore influenced by the natural world, which at extremely high levels of population will tend to decay. For the moment, the trends are negative. The near and mid-term future of the Sahel will see more people living in slums and shanty towns alongside barely inhabitable desert and partial desert, even as temperatures get hotter and potable water becomes scarcer. The coming decades, like the recent ones, will be marked by migration, both within Africa and outside it.
Taken together, and given the difficulties of imposing democracy, different forms of chaos as well as environmentally driven hard regimes loom ahead. Chaos does not necessarily produce headlines. Daily electricity blackouts and water shortages, combined with the relative absence of police and public order, are forms of low-level chaos that become normalised, or at least accepted, when there is no alternative.
As when I travelled through Niger and Mali, you have to be there to experience it. You can’t depend on CNN reports, since low-level chaos does not fit within the strictures of daily news. At the other end, there is sheer chaos, such as in Haiti, where gangs rule, nobody is in charge and Haitians beg for what would essentially be an invasion by foreign troops.
This is what happened in Sierra Leone in 1999, half a decade after I wrote about it in “The Coming Anarchy”. The country descended into utter anarchy, with drug-crazed teenagers hacking the limbs off more than a thousand civilians in the capital Freetown alone. Mobs of young men killed several thousand people elsewhere, terrorising the country. UN peacekeeping troops were forced to remain until 2005. Sierra Leone recently held elections, but it has no real manufacturing base or a middle class. Widespread corruption and subsistence agriculture help define the economy, so the country remains fragile, with foreign onlookers holding their breath whenever people go to the polls. But because Sierra Leone is at peace, and has been at peace for a considerable time, we can only hope that chaos is confined to the edges of its reality even as institutions fitfully take root.
At the other end of the spectrum are the hard regimes that the Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon has speculated about. These are regimes that have no answer to environmental scarcity and restive, swelling populations of young males, and thus rule with an iron fist. Egypt, beset with water shortages, could be turning into one; so eventually might Pakistan, which is plagued by many of the pathogens mentioned in this essay.
With growing populations, expanding slums and semi-slums, resource shortages and relatively weak governance when compared with the West or Asia, the future may not be kind to Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. What might ultimately save them is a well-rooted tradition of democratic institutions: home-grown, however besieged and however imperfect they are. Because of their sheer size, these are sub-Saharan Africa’s critical countries, bellwethers that bear close watching. The Western media will define the future crises in these places in terms of the ongoing trials and tribulations of democracy, but the issue of basic political order will be paramount.
For the moment, there are few good answers for the Sahel. The US drone facility near Agadez in the centre of Niger, designed to hunt Islamic jihadists, is isolated from any real surrounding infrastructure or good governance. It might as well be on the moon. The base maintains its own multiple layers of security on the barren scrubland. Here is a wonder of high-tech gadgetry in the middle of a region that desperately needs a more robust security and economic commitment to go alongside calls for elections and democracy, mixed with remote military deployments. But were the Americans to be forced out in one way or another, either the Wagner Group, the Islamic jihadists or both would likely fill the vacuum.
And a vacuum it is, since these Sahelian states are countries that are barely countries. And the fault for that rests not only with the Africans themselves, but with the West and its dynamic interaction with the region going back to the beginning of European imperialism. The Sahel may fade from the news, but it will continue to be central to our ever-smaller world.
Robert D Kaplan’s latest book is “The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China” (Random House). He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia